The empire on which the sun never sets.
On paper, the Empires offshoot of the ubiquitous Dynasty Warriors series is about conquering each region of ancient China through diplomacy, political schemes, and warfare until you complete the ultimate goal of unification. But in practice, at least as far as I'm concerned, the point of Empires is creating a ridiculous hero of your own design, befriending all of your favorite Dynasty Warriors characters, and becoming a dominant warlord on the battlefield. By now, this is the umpteenth time that we've gone through the Romance of the Three Kingdoms storyline, so it's worth having a custom character crash the party every now and then.
Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires serves a glorious hot pot (yes, I went there) of customizable options for characters, steeds, officers, banners, and campaign scenarios. Your created hero can be crafted every which way from a stout, muscular man with a laconic voice and an oh-so-cute cat on his head, to a stocky woman with blue skin and a low-pitched snarl, to an annoying snickerdoodle named "Douche" who has a spiked mustache, a monocle, pointed jester shoes, and the voice of an eight-year-old girl.
Beyond cosmetics, what matters most about your character's build is his or her chosen weapon style and musou attacks, all of which you can thankfully test out before locking it in for a campaign. As an homage to the anime Fist of the North Star (which was also adapted into a game by Omega Force), my main hero looks like Kenshiro's long-lost brother and tramples foes with flashy kicks and aerial dives. With sabatons as his weapon of choice, he has incredible crowd control as well as a nightmarishly fast red mare, both of which allow him to traverse the battlefield and capture enemy camps with ease.
The hack-'n'-slash combat of Dynasty Warriors generally remains the same as always. Basic combo strings are still mapped to two buttons, though it's important to note which attacks are better against crowds or against single-units like enemy officers, who have much higher vitality and attack strength. If you ever get surrounded or need to finish off an officer quickly, the musou gauge and the rage meter are ready to assist. Your character can also switch between two different weapons on the fly, which is great for choosing the right weapon type (heaven, earth, or man) against a certain opponent. The only slight change is that bases can be given a boost in level through the use of materials. Combine all of these tactics together, and you'll have no trouble conquering bases, snatching territory, and defending your land against invaders. It's a tried-and-true formula that hasn't changed much.
That said, the welcome twist of real-time stratagems adds a dynamic element that Omega Force should consider developing for the entire Dynasty Warriors franchise. Equipping up to six stratagems before battle, your character can activate various effects on the battlefield: standard stat buffs, self-healing, elemental AoE attacks, ranged turrets, instant officer deployment, weather changes, and even teleportation to your home base or the nearest enemy base. Large-scale stratagems, despite requiring your fellow officers to withdraw from the field temporarily, can unleash devastating elemental damage to every enemy base in the form of hellfire and hailstorms. While this might seem as though this gives your character too much power, you'll change your tune the first time you face two officers who actively heal each other. Those pricks.
When you're not tearing through hundreds of conscripted soldiers on the battlefield, you'll be engaged in empire-building through a custom scenario or one of the many preset scenarios available. Acting as the ruler for a territory or roaming ancient China as a free officer who can eventually become a ruler or officer, you must unite the remaining territories and earn merit points (essentially XP) by completing combat objectives and up to three goals that you choose to honor during every biannual War Council. Since every action takes one month to complete, you have six chances to finish those goals before the War Council comes around again. The best moments, though, are when sinister prefects like Lu Bu betray you by attempting to take your kingdom right from under you. (Lu Bu does that and I wouldn't have it any other way.)
Overall, it's more or less the same Empires experience with a Dynasty Warriors 8 sheen. While invading and defending territories will be your primary pursuit, you can chip away at your enemy's defense through raids and rumors, amass additional resources and troops, or construct buildings that will improve your store's stock and quality of items, weapons, and stratagems. Interacting and holding banquets with your fellow officers will improve your relationship with them, which can lead to sacred vows between blood brothers or marriage with an officer of the opposite sex (you can even have children). Sometimes you can steal officers from other regions or be approached by custom officers made by other players who want to join your military. It's important to have a healthy balance between all of these actions to secure and expand your kingdom.
This review for Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires, given that this is the fifth installment in the Empires franchise, could have easily written itself. When you boil it down to its components, the game is just the Empires formula with real-time stratagems and a slightly expanded selection of customizable parts. The lack of online co-op and English voice-overs is slightly disappointing, but this is still a largely innocuous entry that does enough to keep the engine going. If Dynasty Warriors is your guilty pleasure, then Empires would be your guilt trip.